In recent weeks, reports of a mysterious respiratory ailment affecting dogs nationwide have unnerved pet owners. Veterinarians have labeled this condition as “atypical kennel cough,” as dogs afflicted with it exhibit more persistent and severe symptoms compared to the typical kennel cough, which is a cold-like ailment caused by a mix of viruses and bacteria. Many affected dogs have shown resistance or slow response to conventional treatments, and unfortunately, some have succumbed to the mystery dog illness.
Efforts to identify the specific cause behind this ailment have thus far generated more uncertainties than solutions, fueling concerns about a potential new contagion. Michelle Hiskey, a freelance writer based in Decatur, Ga., experienced this firsthand when her dog Sheba fell ill.
The influx of texts from friends and family expressing concern, coupled with social media references to it as “COVID for dogs,” added to the anxiety. Despite not being inclined to worry excessively, Hiskey admits that the unsettling stories circulating did give her pause.
Experts, including those who had previously raised concerns, now assert that there is likely a straightforward explanation for the reported cases. Here’s what we understand and what remains uncertain.
What sets this mystery dog illness apart?
While it’s not uncommon for dogs to occasionally contract kennel cough—a chest infection characterized by a distinct honking cough, runny nose, and sneezing—the latter part of 2022 and the peak of summer in 2023 witnessed an increasing number of dogs presenting at clinics with more severe symptoms than usual.
Typically, kennel cough cases are mild and resolve within a week or two. However, dogs with atypical kennel cough may experience additional symptoms such as fever and fatigue, with lingering effects lasting several weeks. The administration of antibiotics often fails to bring about significant improvement.
In some suspected instances, dogs have progressed to develop pneumonia, an inflammation of the lungs that, in rare cases, can be fatal, according to Mike Stepien, a spokesperson from the United States Department of Agricultural Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is assisting state laboratories with diagnostic testing.
For Sheba, who initially exhibited coughing and wheezing in early November, two rounds of the antibiotic doxycycline and temaril-p, an anti-inflammatory medication, have notably reduced but not entirely eradicated her symptoms. To be declared healthy, she must remain symptom-free for seven consecutive days, but she has yet to complete a full week without coughing. Michelle Hiskey, Sheba’s owner, remarks, “I just keep resetting the clock.”
Colin Parrish, a virologist at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, notes that it’s not uncommon for dogs to respond inadequately to treatment. There are no antiviral drugs available for kennel cough, and antibiotics sometimes exhibit only moderate efficacy.
The standard advice from veterinarians remains rest and time.
How many reported cases are there?
The exact number remains uncertain as there is no national program specifically tracking diseases in dogs. However, to date, several hundred cases have been reported across more than 16 states, ranging from Rhode Island to California.
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The Oregon Department of Agriculture has initiated a formal investigation into suspected instances of atypical kennel cough, tallying over 200 cases since August. In most states, though, reports are primarily anecdotal.
What’s causing dogs to fall ill?
The cause of atypical kennel cough is still unknown to scientists and public health officials, and many doubt that all cases share a single origin.
The limited number of cases and the sporadic patterns of transmission suggest that a singular highly contagious pathogen is unlikely, according to Jane Sykes, an infectious diseases researcher at the University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. Instead, experts suggest that a combination of pathogens may be responsible. While a new bacterium or virus could be a contributing factor, it is improbable that it is the sole or primary cause.
Tests for known pathogens like the canine parainfluenza virus or Bordetella bronchiseptica have yielded negative results. By the time dogs reach a clinic, they likely have ceased shedding the responsible pathogen (or pathogens) for their illness. Some experts, including Sykes, propose that the surge in severe kennel cough cases may result from a “perfect storm” of various factors.
Dog ownership has witnessed recent growth, with the percentage of American households owning at least one dog increasing from 38 to 45 percent between 2016 and 2022, a surge largely attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Presently, over 65 million families have canine companions. Concurrently, vaccination rates have declined for various reasons, potentially rendering pets more susceptible to illnesses.
As employees return to the office and families embark on holiday travels, pet dogs may find themselves spending time in kennels and doggy daycares. In these communal settings, a variety of pathogens can easily spread, creating an environment where poorly timed or executed swabs might overlook crucial details. Michelle Hiskey, for instance, suspects that her dog may have contracted an ailment at the dog park.
To unravel the mystery of this illness, veterinary diagnostic laboratories in Oregon, New Hampshire, and Colorado are analyzing swabs obtained from dogs exhibiting atypical kennel cough. However, conclusive findings have yet to be reached.
Researchers from the University of New Hampshire in Durham have identified a previously unknown bacterium in a majority of the 70 samples collected from afflicted dogs in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Despite this discovery, they have not successfully cultivated the bacterium in a lab or tested the hypothesis that it serves as a causative agent of the disease, as stated on the lab’s website.
Notably, the researchers could not detect this organism in tissue samples collected from dogs in 2018, well before the current outbreak. However, this finding does not provide clarity on the role the mystery bacterium plays, or does not play, in the development of the disease. It remains unclear whether the organism is harmless or exacerbates preexisting conditions rather than directly causing illness.
The researchers are now extending their examination to more recent samples from Oregon, Colorado, and other Midwestern states to determine whether the bacterium is present in those cases as well.
How can dog owners safeguard their pets?
Ensuring that pets are current on their vaccinations can significantly lower the likelihood of kennel cough.
To further mitigate risk, it’s advisable to restrict interactions with other dogs, especially those showing signs of illness. Outbreaks typically occur in locations where animals congregate, such as dog kennels, daycares, and parks. Experts advise against panic or drastic changes to plans; instead, taking small precautions should be adequate.
If your dog displays symptoms, especially those that persist over time, it’s recommended to contact your veterinarian for guidance.
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